Watford and beyond – Latics and promotion

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At half time during the Ipswich match last Saturday the Wigan Athletic substitutes came on the pitch to play ‘Piggy in the Middle’. Latics had gone into half time 2-1 ahead  after James McClean’s well taken equalizer and Leon Barnett’s header .

The quality of players in that group was impressive . Carson, Crainey, Kiernan, McEachran, Maynard, McManaman, Powell – a strong bench that most Championship clubs would envy. But it was more than that – there was an almost tangible atmosphere of camaraderie among those players. Football clubs these days are experts in telling fans that there is a team spirit among their players. In fact even Owen Coyle would tell us the same thing, although one seriously doubted that was the case.

However, there can be no doubt that Uwe Rosler has built up a strong team spirit at Wigan. The German’s preferred style of football is as physically demanding as it could possibly be for the players. But the players have adjusted and since his arrival fitness levels have improved.

Rosler made five changes for the midweek match against Yeovil, but the team spirit was still there when they were 2-1 down five minutes from the end. It led to two goals before the end of regular time and it reminded one of that late comeback against Charlton when the three points seemed to be lost. However, this time it was not to be as Yeovil got a scrambled equaliser in the last minute of added time.

Over the last couple of weekends Latics had been full of running and energy in victories at Manchester City and Ipswich. However, in the midweek games against Sheffield Wednesday and Yeovil they have looked jaded and lethargic. Which Wigan Athletic will we see against Watford tomorrow?

In the next six weeks Wigan Athletic have to play twelve matches. That kind of schedule needs a strong squad with a rotation policy that involves adjustments, rather than wholesale changes. Much of Latics’ defensive stability in recent weeks has been underpinned by the presence of James Perch on the right, with various combinations of Leon Barnett, Emmerson Boyce and Ivan Ramis in the centre of defence. The mutual understanding among those players has helped to them to play as a very solid unit.

When Perch went off injured after 27 minutes on Tuesday it caused a disruption to that smooth running unit. With no recognized right back on the bench Rosler was forced to move Boyce across. Thomas Rogne, who had not played since December, paired up with Ivan Ramis in their first game as a central defensive partnership. Rogne is a fine young player and Ramis possibly the best central defender in the division, but Yeovil centre forward Ishmael Miller proved too much for them on the night, scoring two well taken goals and missing an easier chance before that.

Even if Perch is available tomorrow Rosler will have to think hard about playing Boyce. Although 34 years old the captain has already played 46 matches this season, more than any other player. Boyce is a key player for Rosler and has been in great form, but badly needs a rest. Playing too many matches in a condensed period of time puts the player at higher risk of receiving an injury, let alone burnout.

Rosler has been unlucky with long term injuries to Ben Watson and Chris McCann, who were part of the nucleus around which his team was built. Moreover the consistent and reliable Leon Barnett is out with a hamstring injury, hopefully for not too long.

A strong defence has been the key to Wigan Athletic’s surge under Rosler. He now has to shuffle his pack and some coherence in defence will be lost. Thomas Rogne and Markus Holgersson will probably have a part to play over the coming weeks. Jean Beausejour continues to play at left back, not his natural position, but outstanding in attack.

In the absence of Watson and McCann in midfield much of the pressure will be on the admirable James McArthur. A midfield without the Scot is hardly worth contemplating, as like Boyce in defence, he is a lynchpin of the team.

Jordi Gomez has been excellent in recent matches and deserves his place. He has adjusted to Rosler’s style of play. Josh McEachran is a quality player, but has struggled to meet the physical demands of Rosler’s pressing style over 90 minutes. But watch out for him in the coming weeks. Ryan Tunniciffe has struggled to adjust to that system, but has high ratings from Ipswich fans from his time there. He is clearly not short of confidence and should get better. New loan signing Jack Collison could have a major part to play, although playing  multiple games in a week is probably beyond what his knee can withstand.

Rosler has a wealth of players available to him upfront, although he lacks a natural goalscorer. Both Marc-Antoine Fortune and Nicky Maynard are capable centre forwards, of differing styles. Callum McManaman remains a potential match winner, despite his indifferent form so far. Martyn Waghorn has a great left foot, is excellent in the delivery of corner kicks, and a team player who complies at both ends of the pitch. James McClean is a much better player under Rosler. He is now lifting his head at key moments and becoming a more mature player. If he continues in his current vein of form he will attract interest from the big clubs. Nick Powell remains a wild card, the position in which he will play being uncertain. Being played wide is not his best position, but Rosler has the option to play him at centre forward or in the hole in midfield, which might be his best position.

Latics have the luxury of quality goalkeepers with not only the excellent Ali Al-Habsi and Scott Carson, but the exciting young Lee Nicholls waiting for another chance. Al-Habsi and Carson can be expected to rotate over coming weeks.

Given the injuries and the hectic schedule, Latics are likely to experience some ups and downs before the end of the season. It will be hard to maintain the level already established by the German.

Rosler has built up a fine team spirit and a strong squad. The aim is for Latics to be in the top six at the end of the season. If they can do that they have the players to take them back to the Premier League.

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Barnsley Preview – The Pressure is on


Fresh from their hard-earned FA Cup victory at Cardiff, Wigan Athletic are due to entertain Barnsley tomorrow in their 43rd game of the season. What’s more is that three difficult away games follow for Rosler’s men who seek promotion to the Premier League and further progress in the Cup.

At first glance Barnsley at home does not appear to be the most difficult task ahead. Owen Coyle enjoyed his most successful result at Wigan after giving the Tykes a 4-0 hammering on the first day of the season. Barnsley remain anchored in the bottom three with only one away win all season.  A win for Latics would appear a formality.

However, Uwe Rosler’s side have not performed well against teams closer to the lower end of table. The elation of away wins at promotion-chasing Derby and Reading has been tempered by defeats at Doncaster and Huddersfield.  Moreover it will be Wigan’s fifth match in eighteen days in the month of February. The victory at Cardiff means that the difficult home match against league leaders Leicester City will have to be rearranged, creating even more fixture congestion.

But thanks to some astute dealings in the loan and transfer market Rosler has a strong and well balanced squad at his disposal. The German has already shown that he can successfully operate a rotation policy, achieving results. The quality in depth within the squad is such that Rosler could choose an entirely different starting eleven tomorrow and still have a good chance of beating Barnsley.

Rosler wisely rested the dependable Leon Barnett on Saturday. The ex-Norwich man has played 40 matches so far this season, much more than any other player. However, the lack of cover for the central defensive positions has now been alleviated by the signing of Markus Holgerrson and the return from injury of Ivan Ramis and Thomas Rogne. Given that strength in numbers Rosler might be tempted to play a backline of three, especially against teams whose main mode of play is putting high balls into the box. Moreover it would free up Emmerson Boyce and Jean Beausejour to play in their best positions as wing backs.

Following a successful return at Cardiff, Ramis will be rested tomorrow. Rosler has already said that the Spaniard is not yet up to playing more than one game a week. Barnett will almost certainly return, but Boyce is likely to be rested, meaning a possible debut for Holgerrson, although Rogne is also a possibility. Rosler has also talked about giving Lee Nicholls a chance and this might be the one for the young goalkeeper.

Ben Watson went off injured at Cardiff, but James McArthur will be ready to return. Josh McEachran will be pushing for a start in midfield, as will Roger Espinoza.

Both Martyn Waghorn and Nicky Maynard are due to return after being cup-tied and fans will be hoping that Nick Powell is fit after missing the last five matches. Although still only 19 years old, Powell has started in 25 matches this season and come off the bench in five, scoring 10 goals. Rosler is aware of the physical demands on the young man and will try to get the best use out of the highly talented player, without overstretching him.

With tricky away matches at Brighton and Nottingham Forest looming, Latics will be keen to claim the three points available from the Barnsley game. Rosler is looking at an average of two points per game until the end of the regular season to get in to a playoff berth. Failure to beat Barnsley would make that difficult over the three league games which precede the FA Cup 6th round match at Manchester City.

The pressure is on and the coming weeks will be a test of resolve for Rosler, but he has the squad to cope with what is coming up, providing injuries keep to a minimum. Beating Barnsley tomorrow will be a step in the right direction.

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Wigan Athletic 1 SV Zulte Waregem 2 – late stunner downs brave Latics

Leon Barnett celebrates his goal

Leon Barnett celebrates his goal

A superb 88th minute shot from Bernard Malanda broke Wigan hearts .

It had been a rollercoaster evening for Latics – who had blown hot and cold – but the game looked to be heading for a draw until the 19 year old Malanda struck.

Wigan knew they were going to be in for a tough match, given the Belgian team’s recent form.  The stark fact was that a team standing mid-table in the second tier of English football needed to beat a team currently second in the Belgian Jupiler League.

But then again Latics fans have become accustomed to giant killing, so maybe in some cases it was taken for granted that Wigan would win.

However, Latics started well.  Owen Coyle had put out a well-balanced starting lineup, omitting his two out-of-form central strikers and playing Nick Powell upfront. Callum McMananan and James McClean were on the wings and Jordi Gomez in his natural advanced midfield role.

The four were to link up very well at times in the first half, showing the kind of movement and mutual understanding that had been sadly lacking for big chunks of the Brighton game.

Coyle had brought back the tall Thomas Rogne at centre back who was to dominate the aerial game in defence. Stephen Crainey was brought in at left back and offered good support to McClean on the left, even getting to the byline himself to put over useful crosses.

Surprisingly for the neutral, Roger Espinoza was once again left on the bench for Chris McCann to continue in midfield, this time paired with James McArthur.

In the opening minutes Wigan’s wingers were looking lively and there was much more chemistry in the attack than we have seen for months. It was therefore no surprise when McManaman made a great run to the byline in the 7th minute to pull back for Gomez who fluffed his shot, but Leon Barnett stepped in and volleyed home with aplomb.

Latics continued to use the wings, with Gomez and Powell the catalysts in the middle.

But the Belgian team gradually clawed back control. They  had not seriously troubled the Latics defence until a  37th minute breakaway saw the excellent Thorgen Hazard hit a shot from the right that Lee Nicholls made a complete hash of, pushing the ball into his own net.

Coyle made no changes at half time. Gomez had a bad start to the second half, with poor deliveries from set pieces followed by the crowd voicing their frustration with him after being caught unawares as an opponent robbed him of the ball.  He was to be substituted after 64 minutes for Marc-Antoine Fortune.

Nicholls’ error had proved the turning point. Latics confidence had visibly wilted and it was an uphill battle from then on. However, they hung in there and gradually clawed their way back into the match. There were times when Latics looked thoroughly abject, but they showed resolve.

In the end Latics had held their own against a strong side. They had played good football at times and created more chances than the visitors.

The result was a huge disappointment after hopes had been so high.

However, against technically superior opposition Latics had done enough to win.  The margin proved to be due to a goalkeeping error and a spectacular finish that would have been good enough to decide the result of any match.

The Good

Coyle made a bold move by leaving out both of his experienced central strikers, putting Powell up front. The young player was excellent in the centre forward role, linking up well with the wingers and Gomez.  It was hard to understand why later in the game, Powell – who was the main threat to the Belgian team’s defence – was pushed out to the right wing.

It was refreshing to see the wing play of both McManaman and McClean in the first half. Both played with energy and commitment and no mean level of skill. Crainey at left back also gave support to the attack in a much improved performance by him.

If it had not been for the error after 37 minutes who knows what might have happened? Latics had been playing well and Coyle’s tactical plan seemed to be working. The movement that had been sadly lacking in the Brighton match was plain to see in that first half.

The Bad

There was a moment in the second half when Nicholls had the ball and there were at least seven Latics players static not far outside their own penalty area. It was a manifestation of how tired and dispirited Latics had looked at times.

Questions remain as to the level of fitness of the players. So often this season we have seen severe dips in their athletic performance during a match. Critics would say that this was something that occurred to Coyle’s teams at Bolton and that he is too easy on players during training. Others would criticize the conditioning staff.

In this case it might well have been mental rather than physical. That first goal had an enormous impact on the morale of a team that is brittle in terms of self-confidence. Despite Coyle’s utterings that morale is good it does not manifest itself on the field of play.

Once again the midfield was looking one-paced and sluggish in the second half, crying out for an injection of pace and energy. The player who could have provided that – Roger Espinoza – was left on the bench until the 83rd minute.

This is not to suggest that Espinoza is a better player than McArthur and McCann, but the blend was wrong. It was a similar situation to the Brighton game when the pairing of McCann and Ben Watson had looked one-paced.

Once again the defence was unable to pass the ball effectively.

According to Squawka  “A no-nonsense attitude at the back for Wigan also gave rise to 50 clearances, something which allowed Zulte to rather consistently regain possession in order to launch new attacks, and at two crucial moments in the last few minutes of each half the Wigan defence was caught.”

When the centre backs get the ball they will play it across to each other or the full backs. More often than not it is returned to them and they either hoof the ball forward or pass it back to the goalkeeper for a long clearance. Nine times out of ten the end result is the other team getting possession.

Player Ratings

Lee Nicholls: 5 – a learning experience for the young player.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 – solid, but just not the player at full back that he was at wing back under Martinez.

Leon Barnett: 6 – took his goal really well and was solid in defence. Poor in his distribution.

Thomas Rogne: 6 – ruled the air in the centre of defence. What a pity such a potentially good young player has not been coached into using the ball more effectively.

Stephen Crainey: 6 – a much improved performance. Made some good overlapping runs.

James McArthur: 6 – although he played with his usual commitment and got through a lot of work he seems a pale shadow of his former self. Some might say he misses his old partner, James McCarthy, but Coyle just does not seem to be getting the best out of this Latics stalwart.

Chris McCann: 6 – once again did a lot of work behind the scenes, supporting the defence.

Jordi Gomez: 6 – although he made mistakes at times he was a key link player in the first half. Taking him off after the crowd got on his case is not going to help the player’s level of confidence. He needed a better level of support from a manager who had put him in the starting lineup.

Callum McManaman: 6 – looked like his old self in the first half but looked tired and dispirited in the second. Taken off after 83 minutes.

Nick Powell: 8 – looked the part as the centre forward, full of endeavour and showed his skill.

James McClean: 7 – the best game I have seen him play for Latics. Full of drive and energy and showed a level of skill that we have not seen before.

Substitutes

Marc-Antoine Fortune: – came on after 64 minutes. Poor.

Roger Espinoza: – clearly not one of Coyle’s  favourite players, being brought on after 83 minutes.

Grant Holt: – brought on for the long balls in the 90th minute.

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Wigan Athletic 0 Brighton 1 – insipid Latics go down

crofts

Crofts beats Watson and Shotton to head Brighton’s goal
Thanks to Daily Express for photo

A lacklustre display from Wigan Athletic saw them lose their unbeaten home record. Over the past weeks performances like this have been largely excused by the tiredness factor, having had to play too many games in a short period of time. After a two week pause for the international break such excuses cannot apply.

In the 71st minute of a closely matched contest Grant Holt dispossessed Brighton defender Gordon Greer and got into a one on one with goalkeeper Tomas Kuszczak.  A goal looked certain. However, the big centre forward put the ball wide.

Within a minute Brighton’s movement once again troubled a disorientated Latics defence. Lee Nicholls made a fantastic save from Jake Forster-Caskey’s header, but the 5’9” Andrew Crofts got in there before  Ben Watson and Ryan Shotton to head home the rebound.

Owen Coyle had put out the same starting lineup that won the previous league match at Yeovil.

Latics started the game positively, playing the ball patiently through midfield. They went close several times but the finishing was not accurate enough to seriously trouble Kuszczak.

Brighton right back Bruno Saltor came close for Brighton with a volley in the 8th minute which was well saved by Nicholls. The same player was booked after 27 minutes for pulling down Nick Powell and soon after committed a foul against Callum McManaman. It looked like Bruno was treading on thin ice.

Brighton came out more boldly in the second half with their movement causing problems for a static and ponderous Latics defence. Ashley Barnes’ cross found the head of the unmarked Forster-Caskey who somehow managed to head the ball straight at Nicholls. The previously subdued McManaman put in a powerful long range shot in the 52nd minute, which was well saved by Kuszczak.

The giant Rohan Ince started to boss the midfield, Barnes was giving Shotton a hard time and left winger Craig Conway started to look dangerous.

After 60 minutes Coyle took off an ineffective Marc-Antoine Fortune to bring on Grant Holt, who soon got himself in trouble with referee, Iain Williamson. James McClean came on for Marc Albrighton five minutes later. Soon after Holt earned himself a yellow card after backing under Ince for a high ball, the Brighton midfielder being fortunate to avoid injury as he hit the ground.  Once Holt had come on Latics had started to use more of the long ball.

Following Brighton’s goal Latics look shell-shocked and clueless. Conway almost added a second a few minutes later with a powerful right foot shot that Nicholls parried away superbly.

The crowd started to get restless and seeing Latics players arguing with each other on the field did not help. Jordi Gomez was brought on for McManaman after 76 minutes, with Nick Powell being pushed towards the right.

James McClean tried hard to attack the vulnerable Bruno and to inject some life into Wigan.  The Irishman put in a good cross in the 90th minute but Holt’s header was saved by Kuszczak.

It just was not Holt’s day.

In the end Latics were beaten by a better team on the day. Brighton had 56% of the possession and had played the better football. Latics committed 22 fouls, way above their normal level.

The Good

Coyle had put out a team that had an attacking look about it, with two wide players and two strikers. They played some good football in the first half and were only let down by their wayward finishing.

James McClean gave probably his best performance to date, running at the defence, but more importantly managing to deliver dangerous centres. So often since his arrival the player had flattered to deceive, running up blind alleys and not getting the ball across. If McClean can play like this on a regular basis he will be a threat to any opposition.

The Bad

Not long after the kickoff  a fan sat next to me opined that Latics had played better football in the Northern Premier League than most of what he has seen this season.

Early in the second half he said that it looked like Latics were playing a training match.

He had a point. They were insipid, short of flair, short of ideas. The long ball game had started once Holt had entered the fray and the level of football was dropping by the minute.

The job of a football manager is to make the whole add up to at least the sum of its parts. This is not happening at Wigan.

With one of the best squads in the division Latics look no better than a mid-table team. The chemistry that is missing. This group of players play like they are strangers to each other on the pitch.

In the second half Coyle had the opportunity to energize a central midfield which looked one-paced and sluggish, with quality players on the bench ready to come on and add much needed energy.

In the event he brought on the hapless Holt who is sadly becoming the butt of the crowd’s frustration. Coyle did bring a midfield player on, but it happened to be the one-paced Gomez, who ended up playing too far forward to be effective. Bringing on Gomez to provide constructive passes from midfield is one thing, but he is never a central striker and is not good at leaping for high balls.

It was worrying to see Latics’ central defence once more struggle to cope with the opposition’s movement, like they had in the home game against Rubin. Barnett and Shotton are very effective coping with aerial bombardments but struggle against more mobile forwards who drag them out of position.

Left back remains a problem position. The link-up play on the left hand side is a key element on the tactical side, but it is inhibited by James Perch’s limited passing skills on his “wrong side”.  Maynor Figueroa still has not been replaced and Juan Carlos Garcia does not even make the bench.

Player Ratings

Lee Nicholls: 8 – easily the Man of the Match. A fine performance.

Emmerson Boyce: 6 – not at his best.

Ryan Shotton: 5- shaky at times in the second half.

Leon Barnett: 5 – good in one to one challenges, but looked uncertain in his positioning.

James Perch: 5 – poor.

Ben Watson: 6 – tried hard, but it was not his best day.

Chris McCann: 6 – did a lot of good defensive work, but could not put his stamp on the game.

Marc Albrighton: 6 – looked lively in the first half.

Nick Powell: 6 – tried hard and put in some nice touches, but things did not come off for him.

Marc-Antoine Fortune: 5 – not up to his usual level.

Callum McManaman: 5 – largely anonymous, apart from one cracking shot.

Substitutes

Grant Holt: – poor.

James McClean: – the best attacker in the second half.

Jordi Gomez: – ineffective.

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